Cuba Central News Brief: 2/9/2018

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Trump administration launches Cuba Internet Task Force; Cuban independent media say “no thanks”

This week the Trump administration’s new Cuba Internet Task Force convened for the first time in Washington, drawing criticism from Cuban independent media as well as Cuba’s government, reports Reuters. The task force was ordered by President Trump’s June 2017 National Security Presidential Memorandum and includes officials from the Departments of State and Commerce, the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ Office of Cuba Broadcasting, reports the Associated Press.

The Task Force charter states that its mandate is to examine expanding internet access in Cuba, including through U.S. federal government support of programs to promote freedom of expression. Cuba’s government views the Task Force as a means for the U.S. to violate Cuba’s sovereignty and promote subversive action in Cuba, and handed a formal note of protest to the U.S. Embassy in Havana, reports Reuters. Retired USAID contractor Alan Gross, who was imprisoned in Cuba for five years after distributing satellite communications equipment, criticized the Task Force, saying that “until the government of Cuba wants the kind of assistance United States is capable of providing, the United States shouldn’t be doing stuff there,” reports Reuters.

Cuban independent media, which has grown in recent years thanks to expanded internet access on the island, also criticized the formation of the Task Force. Young Cubans like Elaine Díaz, founder of the independent environmental policy website Periodismo de Barrio, are concerned that U.S. involvement could “damage the credibility of the independent media.” Cuban independent media began receiving attacks from Cuban pro-government bloggers immediately following the State Department’s announcement of the Task Force in January, reports Reuters. Díaz would refuse any money from the U.S., saying “these media are called independent, and that means independent of Cuban authorities as well as any other government.”

The Task Force, which has no budget nor authority to implement policy, will submit its recommendations to the Secretary of State by February 2019.

U.S. promise to issue 20,000 visas to Cubans is jeopardized by U.S. Embassy cuts

The shut-down of consular services at the U.S. Embassy in Havana due to the September 2017 Ordered Departure of personnel may result in the U.S. violating migration agreements with Cuba, reports the Miami Herald. Visa processing for Cuban travel to the U.S. has been suspended, with exceptions for emergencies and for Cuban officials. Separately, the U.S. political asylum program was suspended by the Trump administration for four months and capped at 1,500 refugees from Latin America for Fiscal Year 2018. Cubans applying to immigrate to the U.S. must travel to Colombia for visa interviews, as we previously reported.

A State Department spokesperson said that the U.S. will face challenges to meet the commitment to issue 20,000 Cuban immigrant visas and travel documents in FY 2018. At its origin, the immigrant visa agreement was designed to regularize migration and was negotiated in 1994 as the resolution to the balsero crisis, during which thousands of Cubans made the dangerous and risky voyage to the U.S. in makeshift rafts.

The Ordered Departure will expire on March 4, but the State Department has given no indication if the Secretary will increase Embassy Havana staffing at that time.

Cuba grants visa to senior U.S. diplomat to lead Havana embassy

Cuba has issued a visa to Philip Goldberg, the U.S. diplomat who will lead the U.S. mission in Havana, reports Reuters. Goldberg, who previously served as ambassador in the Philippines, ambassador in Bolivia (from which he was expelled by the Bolivian government), chief of mission in Kosovo, and assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, will be the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat to serve as chargé d’affaires in Havana. Goldberg is expected to serve a limited term in Havana and will likely lead a small team of Embassy staff due to the September 2017 Ordered Departure.

U.S. and Cuban takes differ on health incidents

Cuban investigators dismissed charges that the mysterious symptoms experienced by 24 U.S. diplomats in Havana were caused by an attack, theorizing that they could be manifestations of psychosomatic illness or mass hysteria, reports the Miami Herald. The doctors and law enforcement officials leading Cuba’s investigation into the incidents point out that the apparent lack of uniform auditory damage and the concussion symptoms experienced are inconsistent with the capabilities of any known sonic device. They also argue that a viral or toxic cause seems unlikely, as symptoms were not spread to others in close proximity to the affected people. Cuban investigators have complained that the U.S. has not shared substantive information that would allow a serious forensic investigation, such as audiograms, MRIs, or CAT scans.

In contrast, the University of Miami doctor who examined the affected U.S. personnel in Havana rejected the notion that stress could have caused the symptoms, reports the Miami Herald. Dr. Michael Hoffner, an otolaryngologist and concussion specialist, is an author of two medical articles that describe the details of the case. The publication of those articles is reportedly pending approval by the State Department. The FBI’s investigation has ruled out a sonic attack as the cause of the symptoms. The State Department said in a statement, “We still do not have definitive answers on the source or cause of the attacks. The investigation into the attacks is ongoing.”

IN CUBA

Cuba Will Tune Tax Controls in 2018, Assures the Government

Cuban Minister of Finance Meisi Bolaños announced plans to tweak Cuba’s tax system in 2018, reports Prensa Latina. The actions aim to enforce compliance under the new system that began implementation in 2013. Cuban authorities cited tax evasion in their recent curtailment of licenses for the private sector, as we reported. National revenues in 2018 are expected to reach $57.2 billion (for useful background on Cuba’s currency system, see the article by Ricardo Torres below in RECOMMENDED READING), of which 75 percent will be collected from taxes. That leaves an 11.7 billion peso shortfall in a budget that primarily funds education, healthcare, and social services.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Commercial creditors seek talks on $1 billion Cuban debt

The Cuban London Club group of commercial creditors wants to begin negotiations with Cuba on the repayment of $1 billion from the 1980s, reports CNBC. The group has retained a U.S. attorney, signaling its willingness to take the matter to court if they cannot find a negotiated settlement soon. Repaying the commercial debt is a key hurdle to overcome for Cuba to access international capital markets and to attract large-scale foreign investment.

In 2015, the Paris Club of major creditor nations agreed to write down the bulk of Cuba’s $11.1 billion debt, marking an important step for Cuba’s re-integration in the international financial community. Cuba has begun making payments to the Paris Club, as we previously reported.

RECOMMENDED READING

Cuba’s dual currency is due for revision, Ricardo Torres, Progreso Weekly

Prominent Cuban economist Dr. Ricardo Torres explains Cuba’s dual currency system and argues for the urgency of addressing this key economic issue.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING

Ibeyi Tiny Desk Concert, National Public Radio

Afro-Cuban twin sisters perform at NPR’s Tiny Desk, invoking Yoruban deities and blending cultures and languages in their music.